Freedom of religion and belief from the foreign policy angle

11.06.2013 - Speech

In a speech at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle said that the topic touches “the roots of our value-oriented foreign policy” and that Germany welcomed all faiths.

As part of the Berlin Talks on Religion and Politics, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave a keynote speech on freedom of religion and belief from the foreign policy angle on 11 June 2013 at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Minister Westerwelle during his speech
Minister Westerwelle during his speech© AA

-- Translation of advance text --

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about a topic that rarely makes the headlines, but which touches the roots of our value-oriented foreign policy.

An active human rights policy is the trademark of Germany’s foreign policy. Promoting freedom of religion is part of this active human rights policy.

Religion (...) depends solely on the manner of individual conception.” This statement is a little more than 200 years old.

Its author is Wilhelm von Humboldt – educational reformer, diplomat and one of the men this university is named after.

According to this idea, every individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and world view. Every person has the right to practise his religion or world view privately or in public. Everyone has the right to switch from one faith to another. Everyone has the right not to believe in any faith.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is the foundation that allows all individuals to live their lives in freedom and dignity.

Social tolerance and religious pluralism are not patronizing gifts bestowed on individuals, but rather the greatest gift we give ourselves. For in an era of globalization in which our networks expand rapidly across cultural and religious borders, respect for these values is a prerequisite for living together in peace with mutual respect.

The universality of human rights has been a recognized, normative guiding principle of state action around the globe since the signing of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 at the latest.

We Germans should not delude ourselves: it took us centuries to develop an anthropocentric canon of values that included the right to practise one’s religion freely.

Before Frederick the Great formulated his famous sentence that “everyone must find his own salvation” in June 1740, long, horrible wars over faith, religion and power had been waged on German soil between Christians of different denominations. The Thirty Years’ War alone cost a large part of Germany’s population their lives or brought terrible hardship upon them.

Even in the 20th century, millions of people were murdered for their beliefs on German soil. For this reason, we do not seek to pressure other countries on religious freedom in a schoolmasterly fashion. It is rather what we have learned from our own history that makes us stand up for religious pluralism.

In doing so we oppose attempts to make respect for human rights contingent on cultural factors. We cannot accept this way of relativizing values. Religious oppression is not an expression of culture; it is a negation of culture.

We are concerned about the many cases of harassment of religious communities. We are at present witnessing shocking violence against Christians. Worldwide, around 100 million Christians in 130 countries are prevented from freely practising their religion and are discriminated against because of their beliefs.

We condemn the harassment and arbitrary oppression Muslims are subject to in some places.

Repressive legislation and regulations prohibiting the practising of religion, the building of places of worship, the reading and distribution of religious writings and the use of religious symbols are indicative of policies of intolerance, exclusion and polarization.

All over the world, members of various religions are subject to serious assaults to life and limb.

Religion is often a pretext for the violation of human rights and discrimination is practised in its name, discrimination against women for example.

And against homosexuals, who are discriminated against or even persecuted on religious grounds.

The Federal Government campaigns for freedom of religion, for pluralism and against persecution and oppression.

Germany’s human rights policy has a range of instruments at its disposal for its work to protect religious freedom. Much takes place behind the scenes. The protection of religious minorities is a regular topic in my talks and this includes the discussion of individual cases.

Using cultural relations and education policy instruments, the Federal Foreign Office works around the world to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Fighting causes of religious hatred and discrimination is a task that is as important as it is laborious. It is worth every effort.

The dialogue with the Islamic world is a key concern of the Federal Government. In Egypt and Tunisia parties with a religious affiliation have assumed the responsibilities of government.

We run projects in those countries, bringing together people from different cultures and religions in order to build mutual understanding and tolerance.

At the European level, we Foreign Ministers launched an initiative to draw up EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief last March. I am confident that we will be able to pass these new guidelines at the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the end of this month.

The United Nations plays an especially important role in protecting freedom of religion or belief as the only global organization of its kind.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt, a German national. In our talks last year, I was very impressed by his very clear analysis of the challenges. The Federal Foreign Office strongly supports his work both politically and financially.

Germany is respected around the globe for its unstinting human rights policy. Our country has been voted onto the UN Human Rights Council again for the years 2013 to 2015, which we take both as recognition of our past work and encouragement to do more.

Only great patience and persistent reasoned persuasion lead to success. For example, in 2011 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries refrained from submitting a resolution aimed at reframing the individual right to freedom of religion or belief as a collective right for the first time in many years.

The Federal Government’s efforts are made in the understanding that the right to freedom of religion or belief are universal rights for the protection of all people. We promote protection for all religions and communities of beliefs and also for the protection of people who have decided not to belong to any such community.

When Christians only call for freedom for Christians, Hindus are only interested in the freedom of Hindus and Muslims only argue for the freedom of Muslims we have not found the mutual respect between religions that our globalized world so urgently needs in order to preserve peace.

However, not all conflicts between adherents of different religions are religious conflicts. Religion is also misused to fan the flames of conflicts based on power politics.

It is often not religious affiliation, but rather the fatal combination of poverty, illiteracy and a low level of education that is the breeding ground for intolerance, extremism and hate.

What can happen when religious sentiments are instrumentalized by preachers of hatred was demonstrated not least by the video diatribe against the Prophet Mohammed. But even if someone whose life and thinking are influenced by religion thinks that his or her faith is being disparaged by caricatures or other expressions of opinion, this still in no way justifies violence.

Some have attempted to pit freedom of religion and freedom of expression against each other, but freedom of expression and freedom of religion are the fruit of the same tree, the beautiful tree of freedom.

What matters is a culture of mutual respect in dealing with what people hold sacred.

It is the job of politics to promote a social climate characterized by tolerance, respect and openness. Politics may not presume to judge what is true.

At the same time, a basic requirement for the coexistence of different religions in a free and peaceful society is that no religion extends its claim to truth into politics.

Both religion and politics must impose limitations on themselves in order to preserve the peace and cohesion of our societies, which have become so diverse.

Our international human rights policies are only as credible as our own example. We must be persuasive by being a role model.

Anti-Semitism in Germany has still not been overcome. The brutal attack on Rabbi Daniel Alter and his daughter in August 2012 in Berlin was a deep shock to us all.

The debate in Germany on the topic of circumcision exposed an alarming amount of anti religious prejudice towards Jewish and Muslim traditions. The ignorance expressed in some of the contributions to the debate was disturbing.

It is also unacceptable that a group of neo-Nazis could go about murdering people of mostly Muslim faith largely unhindered for years. We owe not only the victims and the watchful foreign press a thorough investigation of the mistakes made while this scandalous series of murders was being committed. We owe this above all to ourselves.

There are positive developments that we are happy to see.

This morning I had the pleasure of speaking at the tenth anniversary celebration of the Touro College in Berlin. It is an encouraging signal that more and more Jews are choosing to live in Germany. I am happy that today we again have a vibrant Jewish cultural and intellectual scene in Germany.

Germany is also the home of many millions of people of the Muslim faith. It is home to Buddhists and Hindus. We welcome them all. We are proud when they see Germany as a tolerant and open-minded country.

When we speak of tolerance, we mean the active tolerance that considers diversity to be enriching.

That is the mindset whose development we must promote together so that with our increasingly networked societies in this era of globalization we do not see fronts harden between people, but rather see cohesion strengthened. It is only from true cohesion, respect and mutual understanding that peace can grow.

Freedom has a daughter. Her name is tolerance.

And freedom has a son. His name is respect.

Both children require our complete attention and affection.

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